Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Good Wife: What a Novelist Can Learn from a Hit Television Show’s Deleted Scenes

by Susan Cushman

The (optional) theme for the next round of posts here is “Literary Blunders, what catastrophic mistakes have you made either in your writing or your career and what did you learn from them.” Well, since my “career” is still pretty young, I don’t have a lot to share in that department yet. But it did get me to thinking about literary “mistakes” that all writers make and the courage it takes to delete the part of any story, script, or book that isn’t working. I think there’s a lot to learn about this from television script writers.

Robert and Michelle King, creators and writers for the CBS drama, “The Good Wife,” co-authored a piece for the New York Times on July 10 called, “What Would ‘The Good Wife’ Do?”

I read the article after spending a few weeks re-watching Season One of “The Good Wife” (my favorite television drama) on DVD and taking notes on the writers’ comments concerning the deleted scenes for each episode.

The Kings agree that although the scenario is ever-changing—as wives of philandering husbands in the political limelight aren’t always standing by their men these days—the melodrama of political scandals still makes for good television. And watching what ends up on the cutting room floor makes for good lessons for writers of any genre, although, as the article says:

 “Reality is also usually grayer than fiction. The bad husband must have some good in him, or why would the wronged wife love him in the first place? And if the husband is not all bad, if this indiscretion is just a moment of weakness, or a decade of weakness, is there hope? Is there something in the husband for the wife to forgive?”

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, there are lessons to be learned from watching the deleted scenes. (And it’s lots of fun!)

In the Pilot, the scenes that were cut were mostly due to time. The writers were trying to play out the arc of Kalinda’s (played by Archie Panjabi) attitude towards Alicia (played by Julianna Margulies)which was difficult because of the political dynamic with Alicia and Cary (played by Matt Czuchry). When they lost their assistant to another show (“Community”) some adjustments were called for which wouldn’t happen to someone who was writing a novel.

In “Crash,” a scene was cut because the writers agreed that the viewer “got it” without an additional scene to reveal a plot point. This was helpful to me to watch and observe how this same thinking can play out in novel-writing. Sometimes we “over-write” and don’t give the reader credit for understanding something the first time we reveal it.

In “Boom,” a scene was re-written and re-shot, rather than being deleted, because the tone was off. A character was too angry for what was going to happen next. If that type of nuance in writing for television is important, it’s also important to the fiction writer.

Diane (played by Christine Baranski) has a scene in “Bad,” in which she is playfully, almost sexily “romancing a gun.” I actually liked the deleted scene, which was cut because of time, and because the writers believed that the point was made in other scenes. I’m wondering how hard it is for television writers to let go of those precious scenes when it’s necessary, just like those of us writing fiction hate to delete sentences and metaphors that we think are beautiful, if they’re not working.

Another example of deleting a really good scene, I think, happened in “Unplugged.” Kalinda receives a life-threatening bee sting (she’s allergic) through which the writers wanted to show more of her Achilles’ heel. But in the end, the scene had no content—it existed on its own and was interesting and oddball, but it didn’t serve the story.

Similarly, in “Hybristephilia,” a happy scene at home with Alicia is deleted because the plot isn’t advanced; no character is upturned.

Brook Kennedy, Executive Producer, talks about the importance of each scene and each character: “Bits about ourselves are revealed in these characters.” That’s why we’re glued to it, right?

Archie Panjabi, who plays Kalinda (my favorite character on the show) says, “Even in a legal-procedural show like ‘The Good Wife,’ all the characters are complex.”

Robert King adds, “Each episode ends with some sort of moral question or ambivalence.”

Just like chapters in a novel should end with something that drives the reader forward.

In June I participated in the Fairhope Writers Colony Retreat, hosted by Sonny Brewer in Fairhope, Alabama. Each day, local authors joined us to talk about the art and craft of writing, changes in the publishing world, and anything else that came up. One day C. Terry Cline was our guest author, and we got to talking about the importance of each chapter, and each scene in a book. Terry believes that each scene should contain the following four elements:

1.     Conflict
2.     Character development
3.     Carry the story forward
4.     Multi-layering (sights, sounds, smells)

He added that it helps for each chapter to end with a cliff hanger—the more subtle, the better—but something that again makes the reader keep reading.

As I’m heading into the final third of my novel—and revising as I go because I can’t help myself—I’m hoping to put to use the wisdom gleaned from the writers of good television dramas and novels. What are your favorite television shows? (I’m thinking of studying the deleted scenes in “Mad Men” and “Parenthood” next.) Have you studied the writing to see what pearls are there to help you move your own stories forward in a gripping way? Join the conversation here by leaving a comment.

Susan Cushman has nine published essays, one novel and two memoirs tucked safely away in a drawer, and a novel-in-progress that she hopes to publish one day. In 2012, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” will appear in the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spiritualityfrom the University of Alabama Press. Susan is director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop coming up in September. She blogs at "Pen and Palette." 


JLC said...

Revealing my ignorance, I have to ask, How do you get to read the deleted sections?

Susan Cushman said...

JLC: Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier. On some DVDs of television shows (seasons, not just individual shows) on the menu you click on "Deleted Scenes."

MAM said...

Great blog. Thanks Susan!